On November 11, 1938, a front-page story appeared in The New York Times. It read: “A wave of destruction, looting, and incendiarism unparalleled in Germany since the Thirty Years War and in Europe generally since the Bolshevist Revolution swept over Great Germany today as National Socialist cohorts took vengeance on Jewish shops, offices and synagogues for the murder by a young Polish Jew of Ernst vom Rath, third secretary of the German Embassy in Paris.”
Another Times story was headlined, “All Vienna’s Synagogues Attacked.”
These stories refer to Kristallnacht, the rampant violence on November 9-10, 1938, when Nazi storm troopers throughout Germany and Austria ransacked Jewish homes; broke the windows of Jewish-owned stores and looted their merchandise; set fire to synagogues; randomly attacked Jewish men, women and children; and arrested thousands of men.
When the violence ended, at least 96 Jews were dead, 1,300 synagogues and 7,500 businesses were destroyed, and countless Jewish cemeteries and schools were vandalized. A total of 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps. The broken glass strewn through the streets from the mayhem led the pogrom to be called “Crystal Night”– or Kristallnacht.
The initial reaction of the White House was to refer questions to the State Department. After five days of public outrage, Franklin Roosevelt recalled the US ambassador from Germany and held a press conference in which he proclaimed: “The news of the past few days from Germany has deeply shocked public opinion in the U.S. Such news from any part of the world would inevitably produce a similar profound reaction among American people in every part of the nation. I myself could scarcely believe that such things could happen in a 20th century civilization.”
The president agreed to allow 15,000 German Jews who were already in the United States to remain, but he resisted calls to increase the overall quota of immigrants allowed to come from the Nazi-occupied countries. He could have saved tens of thousands of Jews over the course of the next seven years if he had pushed for an increase in the quota, or given Jews special exemptions — as he did when he sent a list of 200 names to the State Department with instructions that they be given emergency visas.
Even American Jews found it difficult to return to the United States. State Department officials did not believe the US government had any obligation to protect citizens who chose to live abroad. “Their real status,” Assistant Secretary of State George Messersmith wrote on November 25, 1939, “does not differ very much from that of the many thousands of unfortunate persons deserving of our sympathy, and having no claim to American citizenship, who would desire to come to this country in order to escape from danger zones…”
Neither Roosevelt nor other world leaders could pretend they did not know that the Jews of Europe were in peril after Kristallnacht. But had there been any doubt, it should have been erased on January 21, 1939, when Hitler told the Czech foreign minister, “We are going to destroy the Jews.” Nine days later he spoke of “the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe.”
Roosevelt’s failure to take any action against Germany, or to mobilize an international coalition to challenge Hitler, sent the message that the world would not intervene to save the Jews. This reinforced Hitler’s conviction that Jews were sub-human and could be exterminated without fear of opposition or retribution.
One survey found that 94 percent of the American public disapproved of the Nazi treatment of Jews, but 72 percent opposed admitting a large number of German Jews to the United States. In the xenophobic and antisemitic climate of the time, Roosevelt was not willing to buck public opinion. He would not even bend to save Jewish children whose parents were prepared to send them away in the hope of saving their lives.
Legislation was introduced in Congress that would have permitted 20,000 Jewish children to enter the United States on an emergency basis. Roosevelt sided with the two-thirds of the American public that opposed the legislation, and it died in the Senate in 1939, after opponents argued that the Jewish children would flood orphanages; that it wasn’t fair to help foreign children at the expense of American ones; that Nazi or Communist children might slip in; that a precedent would be set for making exceptions to quotas for other countries; and that this would open the door to demands later that the parents be admitted as well.
Apologists for Roosevelt rationalize his failure to save European Jewry by arguing that America needed to focus all of its resources on the war effort, and that defeating the Nazis was the only way to save the Jews. In 1938-39, however, the war had not yet begun and there was no excuse for failing to rescue Jews.
Today, antisemitism is surging in many parts of the world and the mullahs in Iran and terrorists in Lebanon and Gaza issue genocidal threats against the Jewish people. Based on historical experience, Jews should be excused if they wonder whether they can count on the US government to act in their defense.
Mitchell Bard is author of “48 Hours of Kristallnacht: Night of Destruction/Dawn of the Holocaust — An Oral History” and “Forgotten Victims: The Abandonment of Americans in Hitler’s Camps.”